The Atlantic Slave Trade
Over twelve million Africans were captured and taken against their will by Europeans in the Atlantic slave trade from about 1525-1866. The experience that the slaves endured was horrendous, unsanitary and overall the worst time of their lives. The middle passage was where the slaves were taken from Africa to the Americas via ships. After they arrived in the Americas, they were sold and forced to work for their new owners. Due to strong European force, slaves experienced dehumanization through being captured from their villages and tortured, living with awful conditions on ships and being sold against their will to Americans.
Europeans invaded African villages out of nowhere; the Africans were caught by surprise with no chance to fight back and immediately captured. Slaves were then forced to march many miles before reaching the sea. The journey to the ships was awful for the slaves, “as those caravans of shackled men, women, and children were marched down to the roads, river mouths, and harbors along that immense coast, they left behind evidence of their ghastly journey” (Meltzer 30). No one cared that it was exhausting for the slaves to walk hundreds of miles in the brutal heat. Even though there were tough obstacles to overcome on their journey, the Africans were forced to push through them. Some obstacles they faced were lions, crocodiles, raiders, and epidemics. It was very hard for the slaves to endure this without screaming for help or complaining.
The Europeans did not tolerate complaining. When someone complained, a slave named Baquaqua said, “his flesh was cut with a knife, and pepper or vinegar was rubbed in to make him peaceable” (Gann 61). This was a very harsh punishment, but it taught the slaves not to complain anymore because they did not want to endure that pain again. The other slaves that watched this stopped complaining too, because they did not want to be tortured. Since the Europeans did not want to hear complaining, they thought torturing the Africans was their best option for stopping it. The slaves that were captured and tortured by the Europeans, were treated like property. When the slaves finally made it to the coast, they were not just tossed onto the ships, they were inspected first.
Their age and physical ability were the factors that determined if the slaves were worthy of keeping. In order to determine this, the slaves were inspected before they went on the ships. When they got to the coast, “before European traders took slaves on board, they made them pass an inspection by a “surgeon.” The slaves must have been terrified and humiliated…” (Gann 63). Being inspected by a so called doctor humiliated the slaves because they had to stand in front of everyone while Europeans invaded their personal privacy. The slaves were split into two different groups after being inspected. The group that passed inspection was going to be shoved onto the ships and the other group was left behind. This group was called Mackrons, or invalids. A slave was considered invalid if they were above fifty years of age, had missing teeth, a disease and, or an injured leg, arm, hand or foot. If a slave was invalid they stayed with their African trader and were not taken to the Americas. For the slaves that were valid, they were in for the worst voyage of their lives.
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The slaves had to have great mental, spiritual and physical strength to endure the journey they were about to embark on. The conditions on the slave ships were extremely dangerous and unsanitary. Slaves were kept close together like animals, “side by side they lay: coffin straight, coffin narrow, coffin black. Side by side they lay alive, alive, oh so alive” (Lester 8). The slaves had to lay pressed up against each other, skin to skin. They were shackled together by the ankles, hands and sometimes necks. It was so uncomfortable for the slaves to be kept that close. They had no privacy and were not unshackled even to go to the bathroom so they went where they were. Diseases spread like wildfire since the slaves were kept so close together.
The slaves were kept practically on top of each other which created the spreading of diseases such as smallpox. The slaves were stored under the ship decks, “…where they had been crammed… and where the menace of smallpox was especially fearsome” (Feelings 5). Smallpox was a very common disease on the ships because if one person caught it, they would give it to the others since they were in such a small, enclosed space. There was basically no way for any of the slaves to get better on these ships. The ships were required to have a doctor on them, but this “doctor” did not know much. They usually did not have the right medicine to cure a patient and if they did, there was usually not enough of it for everyone on the ship to be cured. The slaves lived in misery every day because of these diseases. Not only did they not have enough medicine on these ships, but the crew did not give the slaves enough food or water either and the smell was terrible.
Slaves were only given two very small meals a day and little water, just enough to survive. The Europeans did not care how they treated slaves as long as they were kept alive. Equiano, a slave himself, stated the conditions of the hold: “the stench of the hold…was so intolerably loathsome that it was dangerous to remain there for any time…” (Meltzer 43). Since there was human feces, blood and muck everywhere it made the smell of the holding area unbelievably disgusting. Not only was the smell hard to handle for the slaves, they were also very malnourished. Only giving someone a tiny meal, twice a day with little water is not treating them like a human; an animal should not even be treated like that. Slaves that were aboard the ships had to live through thirst, hunger and overheating in the most unsanitary holding spaces.
When the slaves finally reached the Americas after their long, hard journey, they were sold against their will to Americans and forced to work. When the Europeans sold the slaves to the Americans, “the price of slaves depended on the age and condition of the slave…But also on the period of slaving and the location of the trading post” (Meltzer 33). Slavery was a business to the Europeans; they wanted to make as much money as possible. The price for a slave depended on how old they were and how strong they were because the Americans did not want a weak, old slave working for them. This is why the slaves were inspected before even getting onto the ships. After the slaves were sold, they were taken to the homes of their new masters where they would work for them. Some masters or owners were harsher on their slaves than others. Slaves were given the worst jobs and were forced to work so hard every day in the hot sun.
Plantation life for a slave was excruciating. It was very hard to be a slave because it “…included many different experiences: as Equiano implies, slave life in Africa was less harsh than plantation life for slaves in the Americas” (Waldstreicher 17). Some masters let their slaves have a little more freedom than others and some even taught them how to read and write. Physical labor was the hardest because it took a huge toll on the slave’s bodies which had already been through a lot on the ships. Slaves had to work long, hard hours and they did not deserve to; they were not treated like humans, they were treated like property. In most cases, slaves earned nothing for their hard work. Sometimes slaves were punished if the job they did was not exactly the way their master wanted it to be or if it was not completed in a certain amount of time. Since most slaves hated working and being enslaved, they tried to escape.
The only way for the slaves to gain their freedom from their American masters was to escape from their homes. Masters knew that “running away was common. People ran because they had been mistreated or they were afraid they were going to be sold, or they just wanted to be free” (Lester 21). Slaves were tired of working all the time and they just wanted to have their freedom like the Americans; but the attempt at this freedom came with consequences. If a slave was caught running away, they were harshly tortured and in some cases even murdered. This occurred so that the other slaves could watch and see what would happen to them if they tried to escape. Some slaves were branded with their master’s name or a symbol so that everyone would know who they belonged to and that they did something wrong. Working for the Americans was as harsh and dehumanizing as the voyage that was taken to get there.
The Atlantic slave trade was when Africans were taken to the Americas by Europeans to be sold and forced to work. First, they were tortured on the way to the slave ships and aboard the ships. On the ships, the slaves were kept in tight spaces, shackled together living with disease and little food and water. When they arrived in the Americas, the slaves were sold and forced to work for their new masters. The slaves had to be mentally, physically and emotionally strong to survive this awful experience. Through every phase of this awful experience, the slaves were dehumanized and humiliated.